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Celtic Musical Instruments by Helen McSkimming

An important form of expression in any culture is its music, each culture having its own independent style. This cultural expression is enhanced through the instruments it is played on. In our Celtic culture, the main instruments were and are the BODHRAN (drum), the FEADAN (whistle) the CLARSACH (harp) and the PIOB (bagpipes). All of these instruments still have the power to stir ancestral memory in people of today.


The first of these, the Irish drum, the bodhran, is the oldest form of musical instrument, its equivalent being found all over the world. The Bodhran was traditionally made in the following way: A circular hoop was made out of the wood of the ash tree and an animal skin, usually of deer, calf or goat, which had been soaked in a stream for nine days, was stretched over the hoop and secured firmly around the edge of it.

In some cases a crosspiece was inserted at the back to hold it with.  The Bodhran is played either with the hand or a beater. Most Irish players are also greatly skilled at playing what is called “the bones”, these  are played held in the hand, in a very similar manner to the castanets, and as the name suggests were at one time made from bone, usually from the rib cage of a pig. Nowadays, like the beater, they are made from wood.

Some of the Bodhrans that are played are of an extremely large size. These are war drums, and could explain how the sound of the drum played at a fast speed arouses such strong feelings within us. The Bodhran can also create many other feelings within us, such as the strange trance like and Otherworldly effect that can be created by skilled players, bringing almost into reach long forgotten memories of the past. In many parts of the world one of the first tasks of the shaman was to make his own drum from the raw materials that were in the area where he lived, so that the drum would be linked to the ancestry of the land just as his people were.


Bb Brass Feadan or Whistle

Bb Brass Feadan or Whistle

The second instrument is the whistle, Feadan, which was originally made from the wood of the alder, the centre of it being extremely soft and easy to hollow out. The tin whistle of today is a longer lasting version of the wooden feadan. The feadan gives that distinctive sound to Irish and Scottish music, making it the most recognisable of Celtic music instruments anywhere. The jigs and reels soon have everyone tapping their feet and going with the music. The feadan, too, has that other side to it. It can sound so hauntingly beautiful, crying out for the listener to follow…

The selkies or seals are extremely fond of the sound of the feadan and its haunting melodies, so much so that they will surface and come out of the water onto the rocks to listen to it being played.


19-string Pixie Harp. This Celtic-style harp has sharping levers and features a rosewood frame with ornate carvings.

19-string Pixie Harp. This Celtic-style harp has sharping levers and features a rosewood frame with ornate carvings.

The Celtic harp needs no introduction, such is its popularity. There is no mistaking how people’s faces light up with pleasure at seeing this beautiful instrument, even today it still holds a magical quality for us. The soundboxes of the ancient clarsachs were hollowed out of solid pieces of wood, mainly oak or willow, and were strung with whatever animal gut that was available. Twisted horsehair was also used. Nowadays the clarsach can be strung with metal, nylon or the original gut strings, each giving a different sound to the instrument. Harpers were one of the members of the establishment of the Highland Chiefs.

Many of the ancient harpers and bards decorated their clarsachs with precious jewels, silver and gold, one of the reasons for this was his clarsach could not be taken from him in payment for debts he owed, as it was considered the tool of his trade. The old law still stands today.

The clarsach was seen by many as a gift from the Gods, giving it an inseparable link with the Otherworld. This was strengthened by the bards themselves who, through their legends, could carry people on fantastic Otherworld journeys to the lands of Promise. No one can deny the effect the clarsach has on our emotions, there is no instrument that can compare in sound to its melodious song that can lift and carry us to lands of beauty, sadness and sorrow like a bird hopping from branch to branch.


There is much speculation on the origins of the bagpipe in Scotland. However, this is largely futile as it would appear to be an ancient instrument everywhere, and there is no way of knowing if it is indeed indigenous or not. Certainly we know from sculptural evidence that the pipes were in use in Scotland from the 12th century onwards. Some people believe that the Firbolgs, the Men of the Bags, were the first to use bagpipes made from pigs’ bladders in ancient Ireland and Scotland.

The first pipes probably only had one drone, the second being added around 1500. The two drone Highland Pipes were the traditional war pipes of the clans. The traditional music of the bagpipes is known as “Piobaireachd”, or Ceol Mor (big music), the classical pipe music. CeolBeag (little music) was the music of the people, the popular or folk music. The scale of the pipes is completely unique to itself, making the instrument difficult to accept by other musicians, who will declare the pipes to be out of tune! However, the pipes were never intended to be played in harmony; it is a solo instrument. Due to the different intervals of tones and semitones, the pipes can take a while to get accustomed to. It does seem that most people either passionately love the pipes or passionately hate them! Either way, there is no denying the strong emotive feelings they seem to evoke in us.

The Spirit of the Celts is sung by our Celtic musical instruments

It only remains to say to anyone that decides to listen to these ancient musical instruments and their traditional music that they would be opening themselves to the spirit of our people, which remains strong and pure in the music and can link us once again to our origins and our land.



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  1. What a stunningly good post. I loved the descriptions A wonderful read this morning. I am to respond with more ancient harp tales, but decided to leave it as this ias s and thank you for this uplifting post.

  2. That’s very kind of you to say, John – thank you :)

  3. and apologies for my dyslexic keyboard this morning :-)

  4. lolz :) Don’t worry, if it weren’t for spell-checkers I’d be completely unintelligible! :) xx

  5. I’m afraid there is no evidence the bodhran has a particularly long history in Ireland (no more than such drums have anywhere else in Britain). Opinion is divided as to whether it was originally a skin covered winnowing sieve pressed into service as a ritual instrument or whether it is in the same wide tradition as the tambourine. Certainly some of the early photographs and paintings of bodhrans show jingles making them more like tambourines. The double ended stick technique was also known in England and was used to play a bodhran like drum in Dorset and Wiltshire until recently. Field recordings of Dorset Riddle Drums were made in the 1950s by Peter Kennedy and you can hear one on the CD Dorset is Beautiful.

    The whistle is traditionally made from elder, not alder. Elder has a soft pith which can be removed easily.

    With regards to bagpipes, I assume they arrived in Scotland and Ireland from Arabia in the early Middle Ages the same way they seem to have reached the rest of Europe. There are however depictions of bundles of mouth blown pipes on Pictish stone carvings, which seem similar to the Launeddas from Sardinia. If these were played with circular breathing they would have sounded very much like bagpipes.

  6. Hi Corwen,

    Thanks for the great information :)


    Gary xxx

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